The Virginia Department of Education today released new guidance aimed at getting the commonwealth’s K-12 students back in the classroom. And, they could be in the classroom even longer this year if divisions opt to extend the school year or pivot to year-round calendars.
Gov. Ralph Northam made the announcement as part of a briefing on the COVID-19 vaccination rollout.
He said the new guidance represents a shift from a position that it may be best for schools to be closed during the pandemic to one that schools should be open.
“If you look at the data, schools are very safe. It’s the communities that we worry about,” Northam said.
The new policies encourage school divisions to focus on classroom mitigation strategies to ensure the safety of teachers, staff and students, rather than on the level the virus’ spread in the community. Similar to a strategy under development by the Loudoun County School Board, the new state policies call on administrators to look for outbreaks at the classroom or school level.
Northam said it was important for students to go back to the classroom.
“Children are hurting right now. Families are hurting,” he said.
Pointing to falling test scores as evidence that students are falling behind in a distance learning environment, Northam said local school leaders may decide to expand the school year or consider year-round schools.
Although Loudoun’s School Board has been pushing to accelerate vaccinations for educators as part of its back-to-school plan, Northam said that wasn’t necessary as adherence to mitigation strategies have proven to create safe classroom environments.
In a letter to school division superintendents, State Health Director Dr. M. Norman Oliver and Superintendent of Public Instruction James F. Lane noted that even with careful planning and preparation, COVID cases will continue to appear.
“It is not possible to eliminate all risk of disease in community settings, such as schools. Students and staff most at risk of serious complications from COVID-19 should continue to have remote learning and working options,” they wrote. “But the risks of not opening schools need to be carefully considered and given proper weight. Long-term school closures as a mitigation strategy for COVID-19 transmission may cause inadvertent harm to children; for example, children who do not have in-person instruction may suffer learning loss with long-term effects, mental health issues, or a potential regression in social skills.”